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How Vienna eliminated the stigma of social housing – POLITICO

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Florian Kögler, 21, has something most people can only dream of: a rent-controlled apartment in a European capital.

For a monthly rent of around €330, Kögler lives in a One-bedroom apartment of 33 square meters in a 1930s social housing building in the Favoriten district of Vienna, just south of the historic city center.

An interior courtyard means the apartment is filled with light, Kögler said, and a nearby metro station takes it downtown in less than 20 minutes. His tenancy has no expiry date, which means a landlord can’t kick him out or raise his rent.

“I probably won’t stay here all my life because even if one room is enough for me, it won’t be if I have a family, but that’s really the only reason I would want to move,” he said. declared.

Kögler’s situation is not unique to Vienna, where social housing is not exclusively reserved for the poor: more than 60% of the city’s 1.8 million inhabitants live in subsidized housing and nearly half of the housing market is made up of city-owned or co-op apartments. .

“Social housing policies in Vienna have been shaped by the political commitment that housing is a basic right,” Deputy Mayor Kathrin Gaal told POLITICO, adding that the city’s mission has been made simpler by her determination. maintain the massive stock of subsidized housing built. over the past century in the hands of the state.

“We insisted on not privatizing social housing in the 1980s and 1990s, when other cities were selling off their municipal housing projects,” Gaal said. “Today, more than ever, we can see that this strategy has borne fruit: once the apartments are gone, the city only has a small lever to regulate rents.”

The success of the Viennese system is not only based on the size of the housing stock and the fall in rents, but on the beauty of the buildings. The homes are attractive enough to make them a middle-class draw, a factor that has helped prevent the estates from becoming social ghettos.

The city’s residents’ access to affordable, quality housing has helped Vienna rise to the top of the world’s most livable cities and made it a model to be emulated across the bloc.

How Vienna eliminated the stigma of social housing – POLITICO

With attractive architecture and spacious, leafy courtyards, Vienna’s century-old public housing remains popular. Today, more than 60% of the city’s 1.8 million residents live in city-owned apartments or cooperative apartments..

In places like Lyon, Barcelona and Lisbon, city leaders are adopting elements of the Viennese model to eliminate the stigma surrounding social housing projects, said Giordana Ferri, executive director of the Milan-based Fondazione Housing Sociale.

“I am very grateful for my apartment,” Kögler said. “I also take it for granted: here in Vienna, our social housing system is a normal thing for so many people that you forget that it is actually quite special.”

Radical Vienna

The success of Vienna’s public housing system is tied to the city’s unique history and decades of relative political stability.

The Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) won its first election in Vienna in 1919, after the end of World War I and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Apart from the period when it was suspended under fascism in the 1930s until the end of World War II, the party has governed the city ever since.

The SPÖ made housing its No. 1 priority during the so-called Red Vienna period, which lasted until 1934, and focused its efforts on securing quality housing for the thousands of industrial workers and refugees. who lived in slums outside the city.

According to Eve Blau, director of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University and an expert on social housing in Vienna, the project was one of “municipal socialism” that went beyond the provision of a shelter and aimed to create a more equitable society.

Vienna’s public council housing estates were built to be indistinguishable from private buildings: bold architecture and decorative elements ensured that the affordable housing was also beautiful.

Although they were built to house the poor, the gemeindebauten, or municipal housing estates, did not become ghettos: named after figures such as the author of the Communist Manifesto Karl Marx or the Italian anti-fascist Giacomo Matteotti, the buildings were designed to be indistinguishable from the private buildings housing the bourgeoisie from the city. Even the largest estates, which could include up to 1,400 apartments, featured statues and decorative features.

Care has also been taken to integrate them into the fabric of the city. The buildings’ open courtyards were revolutionary, Blau said, because they removed the division between public streets and private interior gardens. The complexes also included clinics, shops, kindergartens, and the city’s first public libraries.

These were “for the people who lived there, but also for the wider community,” Blau said.

The gemeindebauten were immensely popular among the city’s working classes—and even among some Austrian industrialists, who realized that low rents would allow them to keep wages and overall production costs low—but drew discontent from the from the middle class, which didn’t like subsidizing the program with elaborate taxes on “virtually everything,” Blau said.

If there were lessons to be learned from the Austrian capital’s approach to housing, most other countries were not yet ready to hear them: the Vienna model was seen as too radical.

How Vienna eliminated the stigma of social housing – POLITICO

The Reumannhof building is named after Vienna’s first social-democratic mayor, Jakob Reumann.

As people moved en masse from the countryside to the cities after World War II, most city governments faced “intense pressure to provide cheap housing quickly”, said Ferri, of Fondazione Housing. Social.

This demand coincided with the rise of new urban planning trends influenced by the French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier (pseudonym of Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) who used prefabricated elements to build high-rise social housing in neighborhoods centered on the car.

“The intentions were good: there was an idea for the accommodations to become more vertical and leave free space on the floor,” Ferri said. “But in practice what has been created are unlivable cities in which public space has been abandoned to cars.”

Unlike Vienna, in most European cities, post-war social housing was not integrated into existing neighborhoods. Instead, it was built just outside the city, isolating those who lived there. And because the priority was to build cheaply, little attention was paid to the beauty of the estates. As a result, those who could afford to leave eventually did, turning the estates into social ghettos.

In an effort to improve the reputation of social housing in the 1970s and 1980s, some cities commissioned star architects to execute large projects. But in most cases, these efforts have failed – not because of their flamboyant architecture, but because they don’t address the deeper problem of integrating residents into the neighborhood and the wider city, a said Ferri.

In the Parisian suburb of Noisy-le-Grand, the city imagined by the Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill, for example, is not known as an attractive place to live, but as a backdrop for the shooting of dystopian films, including the billion-dollar “Hunger Games” franchise.


Vienna’s social housing has largely avoided the kind of stigma attached to estates elsewhere – in part because the city has delivered on its original commitment to prioritize housing quality and affordability.

The only requirements to access social housing are to meet an income ceiling so high that 75% of the population is eligible and to have lived in the city for two years, which means that residents tend to be from different backgrounds. diverse and are not separated from one another.

There’s no great struggle for access either: the city government uses a wealth fund to acquire land and develop new projects, and legislation has been passed to keep property values ​​low.

As a guarantee of quality, the city requires that each new project be validated by a jury of experts. Rather than choosing the cheapest projects, proposals are instead selected on the basis of “clearly defined quality criteria such as economy, social sustainability, ecology and architecture”, said Gaal, the deputy mayor.

How Vienna eliminated the stigma of social housing – POLITICO

The open courtyards of the buildings removed the separation between public roads and private interior gardens.

The city’s biggest challenge, according to Gaal, is now to keep up with “citizens’ needs and to respond to population growth, demographic changes and new lifestyles”. It must also ensure that older developments, some of which are now 100 years old, remain safe places to live and are renovated in accordance with European energy efficiency standards.

But despite its age, the values ​​and principles of Vienna’s century-old model continue to influence the future of housing in other European cities, including Helsinki, which has a subsidized housing stock of 376,000 units.

According to Elina Eskelä, the city’s senior planning officer, Helsinki “owns around 70% of all housing and is Finland’s largest landlord”.

Although most of this housing was built in the post-war period, when the aim was to build quickly and cheaply, new construction gave priority to the values ​​that characterize Vienna’s history. gemeindebauten: aesthetics, quality of materials and social diversity.

At the time, other cities considered the Viennese model to be too radical.

“On the coastal side of town, we’ve invested in buildings that are just as attractive as the fairly expensive houses next door, and we’ve implemented a socially mixed housing policy that ensures each neighborhood has a mix of different tenants,” Eskelä said. “Your zip code shouldn’t determine the opportunities you have in life.”

“At the end of the day, it’s not about housing,” Harvard’s Blau said. “It’s about giving people the right to the city.”

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